“The tail end of a five-hundred-year experiment that has failed”:

Love, Truth and the Power of Stories

Translated from the German by Gerhard Reimer

During the middle of the previous century Steinbach, Manitoba, was a center of Mennonite conservatism. Steinbach was founded in 1874 by Russian German “Kleine Gemeinde”[1] Mennonites. Around 1960 it had 2,500 inhabitants, about 80% of them Mennonites, spread over eight Mennonite congregations of Russian German origin. Additionally, there were three other-than-Mennonite churches. Several Mennonite institutions were located in Steinbach, one of them a hospital. And the Steinbach Post, the local weekly, was read widely not only in Canada but also in Mexico and Paraguay, for there were numerous contacts with the Mennonites living there.

Miriam Toews, author and journalist, was born here in 1964. Her father, a Mennonite, was a teacher in Steinbach, and here she spent her childhood and youth, in “the most conservative congregation in town,” as she said in an interview, although as the child of a “reasonable liberal, tolerant home.”[1] With her novel A Complicated Kindness, which won several prizes, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, she became known beyond Canada.[1] In this book Toews allows 16-year-old Naomi “Nomi” Nickel to tell us in first person about her own life and the disintegration of her family.

The Disintegration of a Family

The Nickel family demonstrates that they are not up to the demands of their faith community, which leads them to disintegration. The whole thing begins with Natasha, called “Tash,” Nomi’s admired older sister. She is straightforward and courageous and behaves according to what she perceives as right. Tash is the one in the family who understands most clearly that one cannot be free and true to oneself and at the same time live in agreement with the values and the demands of the church. In trying to adapt, people have to twist themselves into shape, accommodating themselves to the finest points of the church. Tash brings this up repeatedly and in doing so overwhelms her family. Finally she leaves town with her boyfriend Ian, the son of Mr. Quiring, who is Nomi’s teacher. This sets a dynamic in motion that finally leads to the disintegration of the family.

Her mother, Trudie Nickel, cannot get over the loss of her daughter. This woman, formerly so vivacious and always warbling away to herself at some song, is suffering greatly as a result of it. It is affecting the relationship to her husband, who could never decide to take sides with his family against the church. And now Trudie is fearful of also losing her second daughter. Trudie’s greatest strength, at the same time her greatest weakness, is her ability to come to a practical compromise, or to come up with a fib that makes life easier.

On the one hand, she is active in the church, where her brother Hans Rosenfeldt is the lead pastor, and she accommodates herself to the expectations placed on her. On the other hand, she does not look for trouble but makes light of the conventions of the church and, for example, also takes an interest in literature, music and art. She never plans her schedule, and, when the children return from school in the afternoon, it is very possible that they will find their mother still in her housecoat, lying on the sofa reading. But then she’ll get up immediately, take care of the housework and shopping and in no time and as if by magic, put a meal on the table. Much earlier she was a soloist and participated in a musical.[1] She always got along well with her can-do attitude and her vivacious manner, but she always liked to avoid problems and confrontations, until this didn’t work any longer and her life and the life of her family got out of joint. She saw it coming that Tash would leave but could do nothing to prevent it.

Trudie can no longer come to a compromise. That makes her lose her equilibrium. She begins to take walks at night, and the people begin to talk. When Nomi once again wakes up screaming because her sister has left home, Trudie goes into a rage: She takes Nomi by the hand and goes directly to her brother’s house, bangs on his door until he wakes up, and, in her anger, demands that he ask for forgiveness of Nomi: “You’ve scared the shit right out of her, Hans. Tell her you’re sorry. Tell her! Tell her it’s not true. Tell her they are stories. You know nothing about love, nothing. You know nothing about anything at all, and I hate you so much” (171). But Hans Rosenfeldt responds harshly, turns around and shuts the door. And Nomi notes: “I sat on the curb waiting for my dad while my mom threw rocks at her brother’s house and screamed profanities that I had never heard before” (172).

What followed is obvious. Trudie is excommunicated and leaves the family, only seven weeks after Tash had left. When saying farewell, Nomi does not grasp that her mother is leaving for good, and the reflections with which Nomi is trying to come to grips with this happening flow through the whole book. Her imagination about all the questions related to this, including the possibility that Trudie is no longer alive, occupies her in her daydreaming.

From that point on, Nomi has only her father left. However, it would be just as true to say that her father has no one but Nomi left. For Raymond “Ray” Nickel’s most salient traits besides his piety are his helplessness and his inability to make any decisions. His reaction to the teacher, Mr. Quiring, was typical, when the latter came to see the Nickels and indicated in a friendly manner that Tash was actually too talented and too mentally alert to allow her to develop in this town. “After Mr. Quiring left, Trudie slammed her cup down on the kitchen counter and told Ray that even Almon Quiring could see that Tash didn’t belong in this town. And Ray asked her what he should do about that, take an Almon Quiring course on Natasha Nickel?—Even I knew the answer to that question. Uh, Dad, we all move to NYC? But I kept my mouth shut” (117f).

Ray looks on helplessly as his family disintegrates. His submission to God seems without limits, and he never misses a church service, which he needs, according to Nomi’s precocious evaluation, because that is the source of his impotence and his powerlessness (53). As a physics teacher with a special weakness for particle physics, Ray even finds comfort in the fact that even the smallest component particles of any material obey iron laws when they fall apart. He pays precise attention to observing certain procedures that seem to provide him with sustenance and is always wearing a suit and tie, even when he does his garden work. Nomi is above this. But in many respects Ray and Nomi are also very similar. They like each other and find a way of spending time together. Since Trudie is gone, they cook dishes in alphabetical sequence, and their occasional joint activities demonstrate a kind of harmonious togetherness. As possible, they support each other and stick together against a third party. They never quarrel.[1]

When Tash leaves, Nomi has just turned thirteen, and when the book ends she is sixteen and has just acquired her driver’s license, which opens up a whole new area of freedom for her. The story takes place at the end of this period, but it is interspersed with numerous flashbacks and memories, often going back to the time when the family was still together.[1] Since her mother left, Nomi is getting more and more off track, and Ray can do nothing to stop it. She has become a gadabout, and when she can’t be with Travis, her boyfriend, she just kills time. But the relationship with the older Travis becomes problematic, since it fails to stabilize Nomi. On the contrary, the relationship places an additional burden on her. She shows an extreme lack of spontaneity in her behavior towards Travis. She thinks she has to pretend and to impress him. Finally the friendship ends.

Nomi’s daily schedule becomes more and more disorganized. She plays hooky, shaves her head, turns her night into day, tries drugs, is violent with regard to property, and finally even sets the pickup of Travis’ father on fire as it is parked in front of a motel.[1]

That has consequences, and thus the inevitable happens: Nomi, too, is excommunicated from the church.

According to the rules of the church, this means that Ray has to avoid his excommunicated daughter. He doesn’t want to send her away, so he goes away himself. In any event, that’s the way Nomi sees it. The book ends finally with Nomi sitting there smoking, thinking through the past, mulling over various possibilities concerning the sale of the house and asking herself how to go on: “I’ve got the car. All I have to do is sell the house. Good solid unfurnished bungalow. Perfect for families. Going cheap. Truthfully, this story ends with me still sitting on the floor of my room wondering who I’ll become if I leave this town and remembering when I was a little kid and how I loved to fall asleep in my bed breathing in the smell of freshly cut grass and listening to the voices of my sister and my mother talking and laughing in the kitchen and the sounds of my dad poking around in the yard, making things beautiful right outside my bedroom window” (246).

Persons and Non-persons in East Village a.k.a. Steinbach

Suicidal people do not usually want to die; they simply do not want to continue life as it is now. They crave for a different state of things, but see no way of getting there. At the same time they shut themselves off against changes, and their connection to a specific image they have of themselves proves to be stronger than their connection to real life itself. Nomi must be considered suicidal, and it definitely seems questionable whether she will have the strength to take control of her life and to form it. She feels a strong tug towards a state of harmony, to see her family together again, as she is nourished by memories of the time when the family was together in an ideal world. But now, because of her behavior on the one hand and the ban imposed on her on the other, she is socially totally isolated. With her father gone she has no one left whom she can trust, no one who helps her. It is open how things will continue for her. Is she going to be strong enough to get hold of herself and leave town? Or are her apathy and her chronic indecisiveness going to win out? That could mean that even as an expelled individual,

even as an excommunicated church member, she will stay in town. There are some people like that, commonly known as “ghosts”: they are miserable, marginalized individuals, socially ostracized, as, for example, the woman whom people leave lying without raising a finger when she keels over in public from a fainting attack. Suicide is conceivable, and Nomi would not be the first one to choose this way out of a predicament. A Complicated Kindness is not a comfortable reading, nor is it edifying, and it offers nothing to readers accustomed to a happy ending.

The life of the Nickel family is largely determined by the church to which they belong. Hans Rosenfeldt is Trudie’s brother; he is a preacher and the determining head of the church. The story of the disintegration of the Nickels simultaneously offers a glimpse into the inner life of the church, which consists largely of relatives and is small enough that one can know everyone. The uncle tries to determine the life of the Nickels, and that can not go well. He was once referred to as “The Mouth of Darkness” by Trish, after which the sisters simply call him “The Mouth” in their own jargon.

And then there is Mr. Quiring, Nomi’s teacher, with whom she carries on a constant inner dialogue about writing essays. Nomi can meet his requirements neither in the choice of subjects nor in formal composition (construction, organization). Reflections on how best to write a story run through the book. At the end of the book Nomi tells the reader how she found letters from Mr. Quiring to Trudie, revealing that Trudie had an affair with him and how he blackmailed Trudie when she wanted to end it. At this point Nomi, speaking in first person, turns directly to her teacher (and at the same time also to the reader) and reflects on the story of her family and on the redemptive power of stories in general, if only people believe in them. The healing and redemptive power of stories is the hidden main topic of the book. Nomi believes that life is only bearable if we close our eyes and imagine a story that permits life to seem bearable to us. Just like Mr. Quiring, she, too, believes in love. But whereas Mr. Quiring uses religion to form reality so that it will coincide with his vision, even when there exists the danger of destroying people, Nomi is a dreamer who draws her strength from stories she wants to believe in, and from the dream of a world where nothing is more important than love.[1]

Possibly this novel refers to some happenings at the end of the 1960s or the beginning of the 1970s. At that time, when the modern world went through a period of profound musical and cultural rupture as well as a change in societal values and behavior, these changes were experienced even in remote parts of the country. There was an attempt in many churches in Steinbach, but especially among the Holdeman Mennonites, I have been told, to resist this change and “cleanse” the congregations through rigorous church discipline, including excommunication and avoidance. This goal was not achieved and church discipline again became more moderate. The psychic damage experienced by individuals and families, of course, could not be undone. The author surely knew about these events from her growing up years. Possibly they are the historical, experiential background of the novel, here drastically exaggerated and literarily distanced. Yet there are some details of the fictitious East Village that make it easy to see that Steinbach is the true location.

A Surreal World

East Village is not simply Steinbach, and neither do the events and the individuals of the novel have a one to one equivalency, even though the correspondence to reality at first seems very pronounced. During the course of the novel, Toews noticeably and very cleverly distances the conditions, shifting the perspective of the narrative and making it increasingly clear, as she does so, that the reader is now simply seeing “reality” from Nomi’s perspective. The novel gains in intensity and compactness as details glide into the bizarre, the grotesque and the surreal, obviously evident, for example, in the gradual disappearance of all the furniture, which Ray is selling bit by bit. Father and daughter are only camping in the house anymore. You can’t really say they’re living there. And the activities of the protagonists are becoming increasingly incredible and grotesquely weird, when, for example, Ray cleans up the garbage dump at night. Sometimes when Nomi talks and reflects, she is under the influence of drugs, and certainly when the reader realizes that, it raises the question of whether everything is really true the way it is told.

Before the reader has comes to that point, he has long become entangled in the story and has to be brought back surreptitiously by the author so that the reader has to decide for himself how to interpret the story. Does he agree with the realistic opinion, as declaimed by The Mouth, according to which Trudie committed suicide and is probably resting at the bottom of the river? Or does he agree with Nomi that a good final ending is still possible? In spite of all of her rebelliousness and cheekiness, Nomi reveals herself as a faithful daughter of this town: She works intensively at her interpretation of all that has happened and is inspired by the hope that in the final analysis everything will turn out all right. This connects her to the pious Mennonites, who also like to settle for a reality that corresponds to their idea of reality. But sometimes Nomi’s fantasy—as well as that of the Mennonites!—is deceiving, and that which she considers real is, in fact, only her imagination, which becomes evident a number of times during the course of the story.[1] Thus, the novel turns into a reflection on the redemptive power of stories: “The stories that I have told myself are bleeding into a dream, finally, that is slowly coming true. I’ve learned, from living in this town, that stories are what matter, and that if we can believe them, I mean really believe them, we have a chance at redemption. East Village has given me the faith to believe in the possibility of a happy family reunion someday. Is it wrong to trust in a beautiful lie if it helps you get through life?” (245f)

Tact—the Connection between Love and Truth

Toews does not portray the inhabitants of East Village negatively. They are people who want to be humane, but do not know how. They try to be tactful, but in trying they are only bigoted and inhibited. Tact is the high art of not exposing the interlocutor, for example, by not mentioning things that would cause the conversation partner to feel uncomfortable or that would expose him in front of others. A feeling for tact concretizes an aspect of Christian ethics; it honors the neighbor and deals carefully with him. It treats the other according to the Golden Rule, the way one wishes to be treated oneself. Sometimes tact is barely distinguishable from hypocrisy, which is not being truthful.

The attempt to behave tactfully may turn into hypocrisy for several reasons. In the first place, it may be because of cowardliness, fear to tell the truth. Or, second, it may be the inability to tell the truth tactfully so that it will be acceptable to the other. Third, it can be because of an ideological blindness that does not permit something to be true that shouldn’t be true. All three are present in East Village. A convincing Christianity has no room for any of these. Nor should cowardice or inability, in the guise of love of neighbor, be permitted to thrive. Nor should pious blinkers be worn to refuse to face reality. Successful Christian behavior should prove itself in the balancing act of uniting truth with love, so that individuals will be courageous enough to confront each other with the truth—as they learn how to deal with truth carefully and lovingly so that it will be acceptable. Christian faith should draw enough strength from a live trust in God to be able to differentiate between all forms of an ideologically distorted view of things, so that it does not deny the real situation, but faces it. This should certainly be true for Mennonite communities, which have traditionally attached great significance to truthfulness and which, in earlier times as well as today, advocated the exemplification of a better alternative to the world. The standards named here ought not to be considered an inappropriate challenge to a credible Christianity.

The world of the Mennonites of Steinbach a.k.a East Village is, of course, uncomfortably different from what one can expect of a community that has truthfulness written on its banner and has lifted up as its agenda the improvement of life. This Mennonite world, as portrayed by Miriam Toews, is frightening, for, above all, it is hypocritical, ambiguous and averse to truth. One internet newspaper entitled its review of the book “This Heaven is Hell,” a title that hits the nail squarely on the head.[1] Joie de vivre is considered sin, and denial of reality, virtue.

But what weighs even more heavily than this hostility towards life is something else: This church holds up a high Christian-moral claim, but does not measure up to it. It is not what it professes outwardly—and that is what deforms people, who actually are no better than others but dare not admit it openly to each other, for the self-understanding on which the community is based would then reveal itself as a false consciousness, as an ideology. That generates massive cognitive dissonances, which may well result in an unhealthy state. Tash, at least, can no longer stand it and, while in her mother’s arms, she says: “It’s all a fucking lie. It’s not right and it’s killing me. It’s killing me! Mom, it really is!” (146) The ideology of the church deforms its members, it forces them into bigotry and hypocrisy and keeps them in a state of immaturity. A Complicated Kindness is a novel about coming of age in East Village, where it is especially difficult because the grown-ups living there have not really grown up or come of age themselves yet.

The Power of Literary Self-cleansing of a Disastrous Mennonite Tradition

There is no quibbling about this verdict on the Mennonite world of East Village; it is simply frighteningly unequivocal. But in spite of everything that has been said, this novel does not come down hard with the gesture and the acrimony of a final settlement. This is because of the author’s literary sleight of hand: She tells the story from the perspective of 16-year-old Nomi, who, together with her family, is not any better. The Nickels are no models; morally they are not above the other town folk. Their inadequacies, their human-all-too-human errors and weaknesses, especially when dealing with the truth, make them even congenial, and they gain the affection of the reader. Many Mennonites may still have a difficult time with the novel, but they should note that Miriam Toews makes no accusations, nor does she put them on the stage. She tells the story of what a rigid Mennonite piety can do to people—with great affection for her characters and at a literary standard worthy of genuine admiration. A settling up or an adjudication would look very different.

With her courageous novel Miriam Toews does not come on as an accuser, certainly not as a vindicator, but as an observer, as a chronicler. And she does so by joining the view from the interior with perception from the outside. She holds a mirror up to the Mennonites, and one dare not blame the mirror if one does not like what one sees. With this novel Miriam Toews, who continues to consider herself a Mennonite although she does not go to church anymore,[1] demonstrates in an impressive way the power of literary self-cleansing of a disastrous Mennonite tradition. And that is why I am filled with admiration and thanks for her having written this novel the way it is written. It is a significant literary testimony to her confrontation with her own denominational heritage and formation. Unlike any number of other young people, Miriam Toews did not simply turn her back on Mennonite tradition without saying a word: she took the trouble to come to grips with this process and to represent it literarily. Presumably she felt compelled to do this. In the same way that Nomi could not simply imitate Tash and leave, so Miriam Toews can not simple leave being a Mennonite behind and check it off. As she admits, much of what it means to be a Mennonite Christian continues to be of great importance to her.

Mennonites can profit from the way she confronts and examines her experiences as a child and youth in an extremely conservative Mennonite congregation. Especially those who, because of their profession, reflect on Mennonite congregations, their history and theology, should avail themselves of the potential for self-criticism lodged in the literary processing of Mennonite history and the present situation. A Complicated Kindness is filled with implicit theology, and Mennonite theologians would do well not to ignore this and other Mennonite literature.[1]

Self-deceptions and Lies

“There are so many perfect ideas in this town” (243), and the Nickels are a product of this town. Like her own family, perhaps with the exception of her older sister Tash, Nomi also has the tendency to imagine the world the way she would like to see it. Wishful thinking and whitewashing characterize her, but Miriam Toews succeeds in presenting this to the reader in such a subtle and humanely congenial manner that one hardly notices it.

This central theme of the book is introduced with inconspicuous exterior details. “Trudie always said her eyes were hazel, but in fact they’re the same smoky green as Ray’s” (6). She is trying to deceive. The reader who misses this finds it disturbing when he learns how the Nickel family deals with the truth. Trudie attempts to learn to ride a motorcycle from Jerry, Nomi’s cousin. The whole thing ends with a fall and a broken arm. “Jerry felt awful and Trudie made us promise not to tell Ray which was difficult later on when he came home and wondered how she got that cast on her arm. She told him she’d fallen down the stairs running for the rinse cycle with a cup of softener in her hand. Tash told him the truth but made him promise not to tell her he knew” (20).

One of the most serious sins in the world according to these Mennonites is to pretend to be something other than what they really are, but since this demand includes even a harmless trying out of oneself, young people can not develop a feeling for the boundary. To be sure, it is quite harmless for Nomi to pretend, when she first talks with Travis, her boyfriend, that she does not know who he is when she really knows exactly who he is.[1] On an earlier occasion the reader was led to believe that Nomi was a good Samaritan when she was just pretending to help her friend suffering from a draft in her hospital room to find a place in the room where there would be no draft, and then she moves the bed over to that spot, to give her friend relief. In reality there is no draft at all any place in the room; Nomi administers a lie as an effective placebo to her friend.

The lies Nomi commits to fool Mrs. Peters, however, can not be easily justified, and when Nomi suggests to Travis to trade the rug from their home for drugs at Goldzack, explaining to her father that it had fallen from the car, that can no longer be dismissed as harmless. Also, Nomi’s relationship to Travis is riddled with untruths: At one point Nomi tells Travis, “I almost never meant what I said” (106). But Travis had looked right through her a long time ago already: “You are a pathological liar” (76). After a fight she calls, “and [he] asked me what I was wearing and I lied and said his Blumenort Jets sweatshirt” (130). No wonder, then, that Nomi lies to the doctor in order to get the pill. Yes, her father knew about it and was in agreement. What concerns her much more than her lies is the fact that in a more profound sense the pill itself is a lie, because she is fooling her body into “thinking” it is pregnant: “I went back to my medical information. I learned that my body would think it was pregnant.—There would now be yet another part of myself that would not know what was really going on” (141). Deception and adaptation seem almost universal principles, certainly as proven means for scraping by—and sometimes they are even ways of expressing our humanity.

Why does the reader not condemn Nomi and the Nickels for their irresponsible way of handling the truth? Why do the reader’s sympathies take Nomi’s side almost until the end? Because from the very beginning the author cleverly portrays them as amiable victims of the circumstances in which they live. For their church isn’t any better than they are, and precisely with this behavior the Nickels, with the exception of the upright Tash, appear to be the children of their town, of their milieu and of their church with its bigoted piety. For they know nothing but a black-white way of thinking that corresponds neither to life nor to reality: “But that’s the thing about this town—there’s no room for in between. You’re in or you’re out. You’re good or you’re bad. Actually, very good or very bad. Or very good at being very bad without being detected” (10).

As is to be expected, the people of this town, who see the situation from the inside, are easier on Nomi than is the reader, who is looking on from the outside and is becoming increasingly critical as he continues reading. Nomi is very perceptive of hidden individual humaneness, which, of course, also exists among individuals in this town, but this humaneness is restrained from unfolding itself properly within the culture of the Mennonites and the milieu of this town. How to exude a feeling of human togethernesss and a spontaneous heartiness has not been learned, and the liberating power of spoken truth is unknown. Consequently, the people have difficulty with this.

The title of this book is taken from the following central and content-laden passage, which lends it a special status: “But there’s kindness here, a complicated kindness. You can see it sometimes in the eyes of the people when they look at you and don’t know what to say. When they ask me how my dad is, for instance, and mean how am I managing without my mother” (46). Direct, undisguised affection, unaffected cordiality and dealing frankly with unpleasant truths are rare among these Mennonites. Nomi is utterly deserted. No one helps her. Actually that is a declaration of bankruptcy of the Christian church as well as the community of people of the immediate location. Nomi needs help and support, but instead she is excluded and ostracized. When Nomi on occasion encounters understanding and sympathy, she is overcome and moved to tears (67). She remains filled with affection towards the people of the town, and at the end she even has understanding for those who believe it is necessary to exclude and avoid her.

Ecclesiology and Morality—Concerning the Failure of a Mennonite Experiment

“Okay, this is the tail end of a five-hundred-year experiment that has failed,” Tash says at one point (94). What she means is that the basis of the Mennonite experiment, namely to be church in a specific way, has turned out to be false. It simply doesn’t work. The Mennonite experiment has failed. In this noteworthy scene Miriam Toews describes how Hans Rosenfeldt comes to see Trudie and asks her to come out to the gateway so that the girls will not hear them. From their vantage point at the window, however, they understand what is going on from the gestures, and the meaning is very clear: Stooped shoulders, face buried in her hands. Gestures of despair and helplessness. At that point Tash makes the precocious remark quoted above. It’s about church discipline, about that old Mennonite idea of a pure church, which began with the Anabaptist separatism of the 16th century and is still pursued in Miriam Toews’ Canadian town of Steinbach. It’s about a self-image of church which at one time consisted in following a specific code of behavior with which one not only differentiated oneself from the world as a separated community, but in contrast, showed the world a better Christian alternative. In theological terms, it was a matter of a separatist ecclesiology which came to a head as the result of its entanglement with a demanding morality. That the Mennonites failed with this is not a new insight, and now causes a provocation in the Nickels’ East Village.

The history of the Mennonites has long ago proved Tash right: exclusion or the ban and avoidance, once intended as tools of brotherly co-existence in the church community and used by almost all Mennonites at one time, have, on the contrary, proven to be tools of destruction of congregational life. This, together with forbidding marriage with non-members, likewise widely practiced by Mennonite congregations at one time, have been abandoned for the most part. Both are irreconcilable with the modern world and its cultural assumptions—and, according to contemporary understanding, also with the Gospel. Thanks to the contemporary writing of history, these aspects of Anabaptism had their root in the specific circumstances of the time of the Reformation and had meaning only in that context.

From the results of the social consequences of excommunication and avoidance it becomes clear that in East Village the spheres of (secular) location, (Christian) church community and (civil) society are hard to differentiate from each other. Rather, they form a complex whole, a totality that permits no leeway. Nomi has seen through this clearly: “Everything in this town, the school, the church, the museum, the chicken plant, is connected to everything else . . . There’s no separation of Church and State, just of reality and understanding, and The Mouth is behind the wheel of it all” (183). There is no secular sphere. Religion, therefore, can be felt as totalitarian. It penetrates and rules everything. Thus, besides physically leaving town, the only way out is escape into an interpretation of reality where one imagines things being the way one would really like them to be. The Nickels, as well as some of the other Mennonites of East Village, are true experts at this.

Contemporary theology ought to draw a conclusion from this and gratefully acknowledge the enlightenment and secularization of the modern world presuppositions of today’s Christian existence. Only where the Christian community does not incorporate all of life and tries to sort it out, does that which is special about Christian faith and life manifest itself. Only when there are secular spheres of life does it become clear what it is that constitutes faith.

That makes it even more surprising that precisely this questionable connection between ecclesiology and morality, which has proven to be so complicated for the Anabaptists and the Mennonites, is supposed to be the starting point for today’s Mennonite theology. In reality it seems to be precisely this aspect of the Anabaptist self-image which is incompatible with modernism. The process of how, for the most part, Mennonites have abandoned the practice of the ban or excommunication and avoidance could also be considered the process of their coming to grips with the intellectual and cultural conditions of the times. The two are intimately connected and this development is irreversible. In her novel, Miriam Toews describes the collateral damage done where they still try to continue this antiquated practice. Mennonite theologians should listen to and try to understand this and other voices proceeding from Mennonite literature. A Complicated Kindness offers a glimpse into Mennonite ecclesiology, employing an abundance of illustrative subject matter in the context of a lively narrative. For Mennonite theologians it is a reminder not to forget the dangers inherent in the Mennonite way of practicing Christian faith, especially when trying to connect ecclesiology to morality and morality to ecclesiology.

Instead of making a new attempt to connect ecclesiology and morality in the manner of conservative Mennonite traditions, today’s theologians—informed by reading Miriam Toews, Rudy Wiebe and other critical authors—should rather look into other Mennonite traditions. There are Dutch and German Mennonite traditions that have linked faith and enlightenment, Christian and contemporary life, for centuries already—and for centuries they have accepted mixed faith marriages and have not practiced excommunication. When Miriam Toews visited us in the Krefeld church in March, 2008, I told her about this. This impressed her, and accompanying her autograph in my copy of her book she wrote: “Your church is a role model for all.”[1] Mennonite history presents a wealth of different traditions. And if there is a tradition that has failed in its attempt to connect ecclesiology and morality in a specific way, one should look into other traditions that are more meaningful in the modern world.

An Overwhelming Success

With A Complicated Kindness Miriam Toews proves herself an excellent storyteller and a very sensitive and precise observer of apparently inconspicuous yet telling details. The book casts its spell on the reader beginning with the very first pages. In the first place, that’s because of the cheeky, flippantly sarcastic way of speaking which Toews gives to Nomi, a kind of art-idiom actually not spoken by any 16-year-old, yet coming across as authentic. And even though many a reader may feel offended by Nomi’s often vulgar way of expressing herself, it is the rhythm of this tone that carries the reader through this book. But, second, it is also because of the carefully honed composition which she cleverly employs as she mixes memories and past episodes with actual present happenings, everything held together, mirrored and inter-connected by Nomi’s reflections and her way of perceiving and evaluating things. Third, it’s because of the geniality with which the author portrays characters and happenings, resulting in many beautiful and very successful passages that are empathetic and touchingly formulated. And, fourth, it’s because of her very own humor paired with her distinct sense for the comical which lends many of the scenes a typical “Toews coloring.”

A Complicated Kindness can be read in various ways. It is also a novel about writing, about the relationship between the real and the narrated world and about both the destructive and the liberating power of stories. It is also a critical and cleansing coming-to-grips of a modern Mennonite woman with her own sectarian or denominational background from an extremely conservative milieu, which she has left. Reading this book, Mennonites will learn more about themselves than they like. But above all, it is a very well written book about the difficulty of coming of age. This is what has established its unusual world-wide success, for at the same time it can be read symbolically as dealing with the losses and the painful separations encountered on the way to finding oneself. Hence readers who know nothing about Mennonites can identify with it. A Complicated Kindness has been translated into thirteen different languages, and there is talk about filming it. With Nomi (“no me” or “know me”) Nickel, Miriam Toews has doubtless created a character that wins the hearts of readers worldwide. A Mennonite teenager, cocky and defiant and in spite of it simultaneously filled with yearning for recognition and love, an adolescent on the narrow ridge connecting despair and exuberance, half rebel and half saint, trying to find herself, losing herself and, perhaps, also finding herself. Those who read her story will take her into their hearts and not soon forget her.

I express my heartfelt thanks to the small groups of my congregations in Aachen and Bonn, where we discussed the book on two evenings. Additionally I thank the two Canadians Joyce Redekop Fink, Cologne, and Peter Scheffler-Kroeker, Möckmühl, who know Steinbach from personal experience and told me about it.—This is the revised version of my essay “Vom Scheitern eines 500jährigen Experiments” in Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 63 (2006): 153-172. My special thanks to Gerhard Reimer for the translation.

[1] The conservative “Kleine Gemeinde” originated in Russia in 1812 when Klaas Reimer of the Molotschna Colony with 18 families separated themselves from the “large church” because, from Reimer’s view, they were too open to innovations. -- See James Urry, None But Saints: The Transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889. 2nd ed. Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2007. 88ff.

[1] “Miriam Toews Breaks Out,” interview with Dave Weich of November 8, 2004, in Exclusive to Powell’s Author Interviews, www.powells.com/authors/toews/html: “I come from a reasonable liberal tolerant home, but we belonged to the most conservative congregation in town.”

[1] All inter-text page numbers in parentheses in this essay refer to Miriam Toews. A Complicated Kindness. New York: Counterpoint, 2002.

[1] For Trudy Nickel see esp. pp. 18-21.

[1] It is significant that Ray Nickel, although presented by the author at first glimpse as a rather weak and hardly convincing character, is the favorite character of the author, as she confesses in an interview. In response to the question, “Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?” Toews answers: “Ray, because he loves Nomi unconditionally, and in spite of losing so much and having to live within a conundrum, behaves with dignity and grace. He has deep religious convictions, but also manages to maintain his humanity.” (www.randomhouse.ca;MiriamToews;authorinterview).

[1] The novel probably takes place towards the end of 1981; at one point Nomi reads a magazine which presents the summer fashions of the upcoming year, 1982.

[1] Presumably Nomi thinks that Travis has an alternative relationship with Adeline Ratzlaff, the girl with whom Travis plays the role of the first settlers for the tourists in the open air museum. Travis is a few years older and finished school early. He helps his father lay carpets. When Nomi gets her driver’s license she follows Travis first thing and finds Travis’ father’s pick-up parked in front of the motel with Adeline’s Cabbage Patch doll from the museum in it and, in a rage over it, she sets the pick-up on fire.

[1] In this regard, Nomi goes through a development. For it is with Tash that she connects her somewhat naïve and pithy seeming confession of love at the end of the book (244: “Love is everything”). When, however, Tash said almost exactly the same thing on the day before her departure, that was another indication in the eyes of Nomi that Tash is completely crazy and lost: “I wouldn’t let her go. Nomi, she said, I know you’re crying. Please don’t cry. I whispered to her that I didn’t want her to go to hell, and she started laughing and said hell was a metaphor. I didn’t know what she meant of course, my sister was going down. God is love, Nomi, she said to me. That’s all you need to know, man. God is love. She was doomed” (147). On the basis of her own insight, Tash had questioned the rules of the church and had left town. Now, three years later, Nomi, too, has matured sufficiently and is ready to leave the town behind. It remains open whether she will really find the strength to do so.

[1] E.g., when Nomi fantasizes about Tash being involved in drug pusher activities, for which there is no basis. Communication within the family was disrupted. On several occasions it is clear that Nomi only got bits and pieces of inter-family communication. She certainly did not know about the relationship between Trudie and Tash and the prehistory of Tash’s departure. Nomi fills in these gaps with fantasies and speculations. Miriam Toews grew up in a family that was influenced by the severe illness (manic depression) of her father. He was a teacher and after his retirement in 1998 he threw himself in front of an oncoming train. Miriam Toews set her father a monument with Swing Low: A Life (2000). In Swing Low Toews also writes from the inside perspective of her sick father, as she does in A Complicated Kindness from the perspective of Nomi.

[1]Manuel Karasek, “Dieser Himmel ist die Hölle”(“This Heaven is Hell“): www.netzeitung.de./voiceofgermany/karasek/377218.html, Jan. 13, 2006.

[1] Gudula Geuther, “Einblicke in ein mennonitisches Universum. Die Schriftstellerin und Journalistin Miriam Toews” (“Glimpses into a Mennonite Universe. The Author and Journalist Miriam Toews”). Miriam Toews’ husband is also a baptized Mennonite; their children are growing up without church affiliation.

[1] Sarah Klassen looks at the novel differently in Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 2006): 260-71: “A Complicated Kindness makes clear that Canadian Mennonite writers continue to be preoccupied with the shortcomings of the Mennonite Church and community, a theme introduced by Rudy Wiebe in Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962). This year David Elias, another Manitoba Mennonite, has launched Sunday Afternoon, also a novel exposing hypocrisy in a southern Manitoba town. Though some will say there’s been enough of mirror-gazing by Mennonites, the steady buzz around Toews’s book indicates the public’s willingness to look longer at the reflection, no doubt gauging how clear or distorted it is.”

[1] “You said Nomi, right, asked Travis. Yeah, I said, and your name again? Travis, he said. Right. Travis. Travis, I said making a big exaggerated point of trying to remember. I’d known his name for years” (23).

[1] As pleased as I am with this assessment, I have to say that the Dutch-North German liberal urban congregations of course have their shortcomings and deficits, too. Good theology is going to hold and recognize an eschatological reservation, namely that sub specie aeternitatis all human attempts to be church can only fail. The true form of church has not yet appeared, and all of us, whether conservative or modern Mennonites, are in process, and we should accept each other. The problem is that conservative groups, like the church in which Nomi grows up, are not capable of self-relativization and tolerance. I do not have any illusions: If Hans Rosenfeldt could, he would surely excommunicate me immediately.

About the Author

Christoph Wiebe

Christoph Wiebe, the descendant of West Prussian Mennonites, has been the Pastor of Krefeld Mennonite Church since 1994 and one of the editors ofMennonitisches Geschichtsblätter, (The Mennonite History Pages), since 1992. Wiebe studied Protestant theology in Gottigen and Heidelberg. His interests range from the radical reformation in the 16th century to contemporary Mennonite literature in Canada. Recently he gave a paper at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas:From the Margins to the Center: Four Centuries of Mennonites in Krefeld.He was deeply touched byA Complicated Kindness, which led him to write this article, a previous version of which was published in theMennonitisches Geschichtsblätterin 2006. Afterwards he discovered he is the 7th cousin of Miriam Toews.